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Striking Georgian social workers demand meeting with Prime Minister

25 March 2019
‘Social workers are not superman!’ (Shota Kincha / OC Media)

Georgia’s social workers are demanding a meeting with Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze in order to address the ‘systemic changes’ they say are needed to the social services system. Almost all of the country’s social workers began a nationwide strike on Monday, holding simultaneous protests in Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi, and Telavi.

Trade unions the Solidarity Network and Georgian Trade Unions Confederation, as well as several rights groups, joined the protest in front of Tbilisi’s Government Chancellery.

Keti Kalandadze, a representative of the Georgian Coalition for Children and Youth, which unites 41 local non-governmental organisations, told OC Media that there were 240 former and current social workers at the protest, including several who had left their job during the failed mediation process with the government.

‘More than 200 social workers signed the statement affirming to go on strike; about 180 social workers refused to show up at work today’, Kalandadze said, standing in front of State Chancellery building in Tbilisi.

The mother of one of the social workers' beneficiary speaks in support of their protest in front of the Chancellery. (Shota Kincha / OC Media)

Ketevan Khutsishvili, one of the leaders of Social Workers for Systemic Changes, the stike’s organising group, told OC Media that there were ‘about 200 social workers’ on strike, but that seven had returned to work ‘due to pressure’.

‘Most of them refused to talk but one — Tamar Ghunashvili, a social worker in Kobuleti, publicly — said that her supervisor Teimuraz Chanturishvili had directly threatened to fire her if she joined the strike’.

‘No interruptions’

The strike began after mandated mediation sessions, between the social workers from the Social Services Agency, and their employers, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Social Affairs failed to find a compromise.

On 20 March, after a five-hour meeting at the ministry, Social Workers for Systemic Changes announced that the mediation, which began on 8 February, had ended ‘without any result’.

Their main demands were that the number of social workers and lawyers employed by the agency be increased and that a maximum number of cases assigned to each social worker be set. They also demanded higher wages or a separate budget covering their work travel costs.

Other demands included personal computers for employees, a professional development scheme for social workers, and an exemption from work that is not a part of their professional obligations.

Despite being on strike, Social Workers for Systemic Changes said they would continue to respond to reports of violence against the elderly, children, and people with disabilities ‘as an exception’.

On Monday, Minister for IDPs, Labour, Health, and Social Affairs Davit Sergeenko told journalists that by going on strike, the social workers had ‘made their choice’ despite the government ‘offering them a detailed action plan’.

‘We guarantee that no element in social programmes will be interrupted or discontinued’, Sergeenko said.

He added that only 180 social workers were on strike and that the ministry had distributed their workload to those who remained in work. The agency currently employs 227 social workers.

(Shota Kincha / OC Media)

Earlier that day, the ministry released a statement from deputy minister Tamila Barkalaia insisting the ministry had ‘satisfied part of their demands’, including paying for their transportation costs, freeing social workers from certain administrative duties, and providing separate spaces for them to talk with beneficiaries in private.

She added that they were currently hiring over 30 new social workers and would request higher salaries for all social workers for the next year.

Khutsishvili from Social Workers for Systemic Changes said the response from the ministry was ‘shameful’.

‘What they’re saying, in fact, is that the state doesn’t need a social worker and anyone could do that job’, she said. ‘This is a direct attack on social work as a profession, and also a violation of the law. For instance, no one should transfer the personal information of a young person who is a victim of violence to a non-specialist’.

Keti Vacharadze, a social worker in Tbilisi’s Isani-Samgori District, told OC Media that they wanted the ministry to satisfy at least six ‘urgent’ demands, out of a total of 22, including financing their transportation costs to visit beneficiaries, hiring more psychologists, and stripping social workers of the duty to act as legal representatives for beneficiaries in court.

Advocacy groups like the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA), the Partnership for Human Rights (PHR), the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre (EMC), the Georgian Women’s Movement, and the Young Greens supported the striking social workers and joined the evening rally in Tbilisi on Monday.

The Open Society Foundation in Georgia called the working conditions of Georgian social workers ‘alarming’ and urged the government to consider ‘their legitimate demands’.

Poor working conditions and a ‘dysfunctional system’

Georgia’s social workers have been vocal about what they say is a lack of resources and poor working conditions for several years. These concerns came into the spotlight in January, after a four-year-old was allegedly beaten to death by her mother, despite a restraining order being in place.

A number of children’s rights groups blamed an ‘inefficient child protection system’ while social workers said that the death was a result of a lack of resources.

In 2017, EMC presented a study on the challenges faced by social workers.

According to the study, social workers lacked proper working conditions, which they said was reflected in overloaded work schedules, low salaries, uncompensated overtime, and unfit infrastructure, among other things.

‘These problems make the Social Service Agency an unattractive workplace as social workers constantly leave the agency and it’s hard to maintain qualified professionals, which […] hinders the effective development of the system’, the study said.

A report by the State Audit Office on the efficiency of state mechanisms to prevent domestic violence released three days before the strike said that there were only seven social workers per 100,000 people in Georgia. The report also noted that last year, the number of social workers in Georgia decreased from 255 to 227.

Social worker Khutsishvili said that they were obliged to work ‘24/7’. In a video published on the ‘Social Workers for Systemic Change’ Facebook page, Khutsishvili said that social workers were forced to spend half of their salaries on transportation necessary for their jobs. She also said that they had to take on 200–300 cases per month and protect 100 children simultaneously.

‘The fact that children and elderly people don’t die [more] is a mere accident. Where is the Government’s responsibility?’, Khutsishvili said in the Georgian Parliament on 5 March during a meeting with Health Minister David Sergeenko.

‘The problems we are talking about are not ours alone but also those of hundreds of the most vulnerable people to whom social workers go for the first time and stay until the very end. We stay with them literally until the very end, because social workers often seek burial places for them’, Khutsishvili said.

These, she said, were people who had been abandoned by their families, and whom the government failed to transfer to boarding houses.

‘We are asking for shelters for these people, we ask for services for children. For a very long time, we, the social workers, have been reiterating that it is beyond our physical, emotional, and human resources to do our job. As a result, the most vulnerable people suffer’, she said.

Social workers have claimed that each of them has to deal with more than 100 unique cases every week. Due to the amount of work, they have said that they barely manage to read the applications.

‘The [Gldani] service centre has been working without a senior social worker for a month now. There are 10 workers in the centre, six of whom are newcomers. There is no inner instruction of distributing the cases. A person who arrived a week ago has to work on a sexual violence case. Who will take responsibility if they make a mistake? Who is responsible for the fact that a social worker gets 100 new cases a week and they barely manage to read the applications?’, Khutsishvili asked.